From long and sometimes painful personal experience and digging through many running resources, these are ten thoughts on long distance training and racing.
--Succeed with a Smart Skull
Starting the race with a good head gives you a good headstart on the way to a great finish. But keeping the head both in and out of the action is the runner’s toughest balancing act. Physically, the head should be up, with the eyes focused ahead but constantly flicking downward to scan the trail surface. But the head also contains an energy-gobbling brain that can sap your strength if you let it go wild instead of concentrating on your race. The brain is the switchboard of your body’s feedback system that reports on how your various parts are doing. You need to keep this vital command center strong and uncluttered. As the great director, the head leads you through the race action from beginning to end. Shut out the noise and let your head focus on what you have left in the tank. Keep the needle from hitting empty until you’re over the finish line.
--Stay with Strong and Steady Breathing
You go nowhere if you don’t ride the big air. Oxygen is the fuel that drives your engine, and if you don’t pump enough in, you stall out. As you train hard and gradually increase your air intake capacity, the surface area of your lungs expands by forming tiny pockets that feed the blood vessels. More oxygen in the blood, the greater your stamina and the faster you go. But bigger lungs only come with big, deep, extended breaths into a chest that is projected up and outward. If you slump back and take quick shallow gulps, your lungs don’t develop fully. Air it out for the long run and keep going deep.
--Square Off Your Shoulders
You have enough burdens to carry when running without adding another ton to your shoulders. Running hunched over with droopy, curled-in shoulders signals that you’ve packed it in for the day. Shoulders should always be up and pressed slightly back in tandem with a raised chin and forward-curved chest. Work at building up the shoulders and bicep muscles during training exercises. Strong and well-balanced shoulders can keep you in the race, and their energy stores will be fueling the legs near the end when other reserves are running empty. A square deal is a good deal all the way to the finish.
--Swing the Arms Short and Snappy
If you run the trail unarmed, you’re going down. When the legs move, the arms need to be in synch to keep you balanced and propel your forward drive. Arms are especially critical on hills and in the sprint to the finish. They should be semi-relaxed, hands comfortably closed, with the forearms swinging in short even strokes at chest level and fairly straight ahead and back. If you clench your fists tightly or have slackly hanging mitts, or wildly swing your arms across the chest or press them rigidly against you, the consequences are poor balance, sapped energy, and bad running form. Keep your swing short and sweet.
--Shape Up Your Running Stance
Invariably when you look at the top runners in big races, you see that they have something in common: an upright running stance with a moderate projection of the chest. A good running form not only keeps you in balance and sets up your legs to stride smoothly, it also stretches out the upper torso so that the lungs can grow. If you run sitting a bit backward or a little hunched over or straight up without pressing the chest forward, you are cutting back on the oxygen that is trying to rush in to your blast furnace. Lean into the action and let the air flow in so that you can run strong off the front of your feet.
--Stay in Balance
When you’re on the trails, you’re not there to dance. Swaying side to side, bouncing hard up and down, and rocking backwards and forwards just wastes your power and messes up your running motion. Try to keep all parts of the body in a natural easy balance so that you can focus on moving onward with the least taxing gait. Staying balanced also helps to keep you out of harm’s way on rough terrain or when speeding down hills. Aim for a smooth glide, not a wild ride.
--Stride Right and Strut Your Best Stuff
Getting in step with yourself is one of the toughest tasks for a runner. Over-striding or short-stepping, pronating your foot inward or suplinating it outward, landing flat-footed or solidly on the heel, bouncing way upward off the foot, kicking your heels up to your backside, and a variety of other excessive and bad running habits can seriously hurt your performance and lead to injuries. While in synch with a slight forward lean of your upper body, try to run with a natural, fluid gait featuring moderate strides that land on the front of the foot. The foot on impact should land under the body, not out ahead of it. Keep the foot pointing straight ahead, and land in a quick snappy flick of the spikes with all the momentum pushing forward. When you are in shape and you are striding right, you will feel like you’re skimming the ground and running on water.
--Suck It Up and Scale the Hills
Hills can be your friends and give you a big advantage if you treat them right, or they can be your worst enemy if you do them wrong. Get ready before you meet them, and stay strong with your head up and shoulders back as you drive up the hill. Push off the front of the foot in short strides and keep your arms working in sharp strokes. As you near the top, set up for a strong burst to propel yourself past recovering runners. Roll the downhills with more extended strides as fast as you can go without throwing yourself off balance or hyperventilating. As you reach the bottom of the hill, get set for another strong push on the flatter ground. And like any friends, check up on them before the race and get to know them well.
--Strategize Your Race
Hit the starting line knowing just how you’re going to run your race. Having a clear picture of the course layout is vital, and having a good plan for each part of the trail is just as critical. Think how long you will wait to make a move on runners ahead of you who went out too fast. Which runners will you dog until the final sprint? Where do you have to keep something in reserve for a killer hill? Where is the course footing a little treacherous, and how does the race day weather affect your race? Do the homework before you race to ensure that your coach gives you an A for effort.
--Stepping Out in High Spirits
Step up to the starting line ready for a fight, and run with an attitude. But keeping a steely confidence during the adrenaline kick in the first tenth of a mile is easy; it’s those last three miles and big hills that can kill you. You have to channel the spirit of races past for lessons to guide you through the spirit of races present and future. Know where the weak and troublesome spots in your running psyche hide out, and be ready to meet any challenge with a strong attack. The spirit only remains strong though if you run smartly and don’t push way past your limits early in the race. Let the heart and brain work together and will you to your best effort.